There's an old saying in baseball about momentum being made up of the next day's starting pitcher. And when Ole Miss' Doug Nikhazy started dealing against Mississippi State on Saturday, it was apparent the Rebels had all the momentum they needed to even up this weekend's three-game series.
Nikhazy baffled State all afternoon long, pitching a one-hit, complete-game shutout, as the No. 6 Rebels topped No. 4 MSU by a score of 9-0. On this day against Nikhazy, it was almost as though State batters had no chance.
"He's really good," MSU head coach Chris Lemonis said of Nikhazy. "He's pitched really good of late and he's pitched really good his whole career. He's one of the better arms in our league and the country. He got a lead and he took that lead and he just jammed it down our throats all day long."
The only blemishes against Nikhazy came on a fifth-inning single issued to MSU's Brayland Skinner, along with a couple of walks. He struck out 12 Bulldogs as he cruised to the win. MSU never even got a runner to second base in the game.
And if the offensive woes against Ole Miss' stellar left-hander weren't bad enough for the Bulldogs, MSU pitching faltered as well. Starter Will Bednar had his worst appearance of the year as he couldn't get past the fourth inning. He allowed six runs and seven hits over three-plus frames.
"I saw him in the middle of the (strike) zone," Lemonis said of Bednar's woes. "There were a lot of balls in the middle of the zone. He tried to work away and was missing away and tried to over (correct) and just missed a lot in the middle of the zone."
Four of the seven hits Bednar allowed went for extra bases, including one home run against him. Three MSU relievers followed Bednar to the mound, but by then, the Bulldogs were in much too deep of a hole to climb out from against the dominant Nikhazy.
As a result, the stage is now set for a critical rubber game in this weekend's series on Sunday at 1 p.m.
"I told (the team), 'You're going to have to respond,'" Lemonis said. "(I said), 'We felt like a million bucks (Friday night) and (Ole Miss was) pissed and now we're the ones that are pissed.' We have to get a good night's sleep, come back ready to go and the sun comes up (Sunday). It's a new day and we have a chance to win a big ballgame against our rival. It's going to be a heck of a game (Sunday), but we've got to come out and play better. We were beat in every phase of the game (Saturday)."
(TO WATCH CHRIS LEMONIS' FULL POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCE, CLICK HERE. YOU CAN WATCH ROWDEY JORDAN'S FULL POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCE AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE.)
Alright, let's take a quick look at the numbers, MSU MVPs, the Moment of the Game and a couple of notes from Saturday's contest.
Ole Miss at Mississippi State box score
MSU Offensive MVP: LF Brayland Skinner
Skinner's lone hit of Saturday wasn't much – just a single to center in fact. However it was the only thing on this day that kept MSU from getting no-hit.
Yes, the offense was essentially non-existent for State against Nikhazy. But at least for the Bulldogs, Skinner was able to keep a goose egg out of the hits column.
MSU Pitching MVP: RP Eric Cerantola
Cerantola has been a bit of a forgotten man ever since losing his spot in the weekend rotation, but he gave at least a brief reminder on Saturday that he's still around and his promising stuff still has potential.
Cerantola pitched a scoreless ninth for MSU on Saturday. He did walk the first batter he faced, but bounced back by inducing a fielder's choice, a fly out and notching a strikeout. Cerantola was the only pitcher State used on Saturday that didn't allow at least one run.
"We’re just trying to get him out of the bullpen," Lemonis said of Cerantola. "I thought he was pretty good. He walked the first guy, but I thought he was good after that. "
Moment of the Game: Rebels blow it open
Mississippi State went into the fourth inning already trailing 3-0 and Ole Miss doubled that advantage to make a comeback appear nearly impossible the way Nikhazy was dealing.
The Rebels started their fourth-inning rally with a Hayden Leatherwood leadoff home run to right-centerfield. By the time the frame was done, Ole Miss had knocked Bednar out of the game and led 6-0. At that point, it felt like the writing was on the wall for State.
– In the midst of a season-long slump, usual starting first baseman Josh Hatcher wasn't in MSU's lineup on Saturday. Lemonis instead opted to use Luke Hancock at first and Brad Cumbest as the designated hitter.
"(Hatcher) has got to give us better at-bats," Lemonis said. "Give us at-bats like he gave us at Auburn. We need him to swing. We’re just trying to get an extra hitter in the lineup. And Nikhazy is really good (against left-handed hitters)."
– Mississippi State will start right-hander Jackson Fristoe on the mound in Sunday's series finale against Ole Miss righty Drew McDaniel. Lemonis was asked after Saturday's game about how MSU matches up with McDaniel.
"I haven’t sat down and scouted him yet," Lemonis said. "But I’ve seen him pitch some games this year. I think it’s 90-93 (miles per hour), right-hander who competes. He’s done well in a starting role. They tried to throw him out of the pen and he didn’t throw as well. Then as a starter, he's been pretty good. It’s gonna be a good matchup, probably a little better matchup than facing Nikhazy (Saturday) for us."